Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On Fiction #1---Blunt, Not Bland

I haven't posted in any detail on writing fiction since before the holidays. Blame it on the conjunction of holidays, a really nasty virus, and business travel. So, I figured I'd jump back in. I'm numbering these posts, which I'll continue over the year, so those of you who aren't interested in the topic---or who want writing advice sugar-coated, not tart---can skip the post entirely and watch a viral video instead. The video is mindless distraction. My purpose in being blunt and not sugar coating my observations/advice is to provide real help to those of you who are serious about writing mass-market fiction. If you're a dabbler or a hobbyist, these posts are not for you. You will not enjoy them. In fact, they may make you uncomfortable. That's why I'm warning bloggers that these posts will not be warm and fuzzy.

Why the different tone? Like the other Cozy Chicks, I've been paying attention to blogger comments. We Chicks know some of you want to learn as much as you can about this crazy business of mass market fiction. So, we're trying to provide information. I like to think of it as "empowerment." Since I've moved into the 'mentoring' stage of my life----the Obi Wan phase, I like to call it---I find myself doing it whenever I'm at conferences and booksignings and promotions on the road. People come up to me, tell me their situation, then ask my advice. And I give it. The same sort of advice I'll be giving over the next few months in these posts.

First, a disclaimer. I do not profess to be an expert. But I do have nearly thirty years of experience in the business of writing mass market commercial fiction. I've watched talented writers who've worked very hard and succeeded. And I've watched talented writers who've worked very hard and failed to be published. And---worse---I've watched talented writers succeed, then. . .shoot themselves in the foot and fail. And I've learned a lot from watching as much as I have from participating. I've spent more years writing and not being published than I have spent writing and being published.

So----for this week, I'll start by disabusing you of any "fiction fantasies" you may have acquired.

1---There is no secret formula., no quick way to become published. There is no magic list with items, and all you have to do it complete and check off the items, then voila! Your novels will sell. Sorry. It doesn't work that way. If you're serious about
writing fiction, then you'll have to do what every other successful writer does: apprentice yourself to your craft and learn how. (More about that in a later post).

2---Not everyone is cut out to write mass market fiction. By mass market, I mean commercial fiction. Hardcovers and paperbacks in grocery stores and bookstores. Mass market fiction is really a smaller segment of the books that are published every year. The vast majority would fall under the category of "non-fiction." And if you're smart and have a good idea for an article or a book on a subject you're experienced with, you'd be crazy not to write non-fiction. It's also a saner world than the brutal world of mass market fiction publishing. Non-fiction is also a much larger share than fiction. Think about it.

3---Not every talented writer will be published. No matter how talented, no matter how beautiful their prose is, no matter how hard they work or how long. . .it still won't happen. Statistically, the odds are against it. In fact, one waggish statitician remarked that the odds of getting struck by lightning are greater than getting your first manuscript published. As one who lives in Colorado, I have to concur.

Why is that? Why doesn't every talented, hardworking fiction writer get published? Well, that brings me to the last debunking point for this week: Life's not fair. There's an element of "good fortune" that plays a part. Some call it timing. I'll give you an example.

It took me five years to become published in my first fiction genre of choice: historical romance. It was not my first book that sold. It was my fourth completed novel, a historical western. Approximately 100,000 words. Before that, I had written a sweeping family saga set in turn of the century America in the late 1800's, the days of Robber Barons, corrupt Senators, and struggling Irish. That was over 170,000 words and took nearly four years to write while balancing work and raising a family. The second novel was a big, brawling Musketeer swashbuckler set in 1600's France and was about 125,000 words. Lots of fun. The first novel---the one I'd labored over during baby naptimes and late at night was. . .well, you don't want to know how many words. Great characters but it's still in the bottom of the file cabinet where most first novels wind up. Sad but true.

The reason I list all that detail is that you'll notice a pattern. During those five+ years before I sold the western, I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. That's what you do when you're apprenticing in the craft. You Read, Study, Write, Critique and Submit. Then, you do it all over again. And you get better and better and better. One day, Fortune smiled, and an editor read my western and loved it. It was published by Penguin's Jove Wildflower line of historicals in 1995. My agent and I were ecstatic. All those years of hard work were being rewarded. The editor predicted great things. Then-----it all disappeared. In the blink of an eye.

The book came out and sold well enough, but by then, corporate downsizing had hit publishing and editorial lines were being cut right and left. Writers' slots were being eliminated, lines cut, and writers' option books not bought. Scores of writers were out of work. Some, after writing with a line for years. So, after a brief taste of success, I found myself back on the bench again, unpublished again, and severely disappointed. How did I cope? By doing the only thing a novelist can do----keep writing novels. I wrote and I wrote for another ten years. And then, lightning struck again. And the Kelly Flynn knitting mysteries were sold to Berkley Prime Crime.

Not fair, you may say. Fair doesn't have anything to do with with it. Writing mass market commercial fiction is not for the faint-hearted. Consider yourselves warned.